Are you buying with Vista in mind?

Yes, I have written about Vista before -- most recently in May (Waiting for Vista? Well don't!
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

Yes, I have written about Vista before -- most recently in May (Waiting for Vista? Well don't!)  In that post, I urged Education IT not to be overly anxious to migrate to Vista -- and that advice still stands. 

Nevertheless, as those of you supporting information technology start to plan for those life-cycle purchases of computing hardware for the upcoming school year, I wonder if you are thinking about the hardware you are purchasing and whether or not it will be able to run Vista come spring -- or more realistically, come Fall of 2007, when many of the bugs have been shaken out and your students are talking about all of those new features which you are beginning to think about deploying.

I have just begun to look at Windows Vista beta 2 and I am starting to drool.  It looks nice and it is even pretty stable on the 512MB Dell notebook I am using for testing.  To be sure, it is a little sluggish with only 512MB though -- logged in and idling with a running wireless VPN connection, and with Symantec Anti-Virus the only running application, Windows Vista consumes 504MB of Page Files (virtual memory) so one shouldn't be surprised.  Oh, and there WILL BE a learning curve to adjust to the new paradigm (even WITHOUT the new Aero user interface.) 

What I have also learned though is that those of you who rely heavily on donations of used equipment may have a rude awakening when Vista comes on the scene.  Sure Microsoft will continue to support Windows XP Pro for the foreseeable future but it won't take long for Windows XP installation CDs to become scarce and soon thereafter, developers will start releasing applications intended to take advantage of Vista. 

If you've been following Vista at all, you've seen Microsoft's published requirements for a Windows Vista Capable PC:

  • 800MHz Pentium-class processor
  • 512 MB of RAM
  • graphics processor that is DirectX 9 capable

They don't really tell you that you also need:

  • DVD-ROM drive
  • 20GB of HD space (15GB free)

Still, considering that 800MHz Pentium processors have been around since 2000, and considering that RAM and disk space is inexpensive these days, and graphics cards are not very expensive either, upgrading to Vista ought to be simple and straightforward.  Right? 

If we want "an even better Windows Vista experience", Microsoft tells us we need a Windows Vista Premium Ready PC with the following features:

  • 1 GHz 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor
  • 1 GB of RAM
  • graphics processor that runs Windows Aero (the new user interface)
  • 128MB of graphics memory
  • Audio output capability
  • Internet access (well, yeah!)

Even with these criteria, upgrading 80% of what you've got ought to be easy enough.  Right? 

Just for laughs, I thought I'd upgrade my circa 2000 Dell Dimension 4100 (866MHz, 512MB RAM, 128MB Graphics RAM) so it could run Vista.  Sure, I know it'll be sluggish at sub-1GHz speeds but I also know that adding RAM can make up for slow processors quicker than fast processors can make up for insufficient RAM.  If money is tight (and money is certainly tight in Education IT these days), then upgrading those donations from a couple of years back ought to work fine.  Besides, Dell even offers a "Vista Readiness Assessment Tool" (Are you ready for Vista? Dell's Vista Assessment Tool) to show me what I need to do to upgrade my aging Dell to do the job!

Guess what?  Dell's "Vista Readiness Assessment Tool" tells me I CANNOT upgrade my computer to run Vista!  Why not?  So far, their technical support folks won't tell me.  They just refer me back to the very same Microsoft link I have provided above -- which indicates that I should be able to upgrade.  So, what gives? 

I suppose that it could be that they just want to sell me a new computer.  After all, they won't make any money selling me add-ons for my old Dimension 4100.  But wait, that same tool maintains that a three-year-old Optiplex GX260 that I've been using cannot be upgraded either! 

[UPDATE:  You thought I was being cyncial when I suggested that Dell just wanted me to buy new hardware, didn't you?  Well, last night I ventured over to the Microsoft Windows Vista site and I tried Microsoft's own Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor and it not only made recommendations for upgrading my aging Dell Dimension 4100 but it also provided links to vendors who could sell me the upgrades appropriate for my particular model!  Why couldn't Dell have done that?]

What about Dell systems sold today?  Certainly, THEY will be upgradeable!  Right? 

I moved on to Dell's list of compatible systems -- you know, those systems in their product line today which will be able to run Windows Vista when it ships next January.  I know...  You're saying  "They ALL must be capable of running Vista, right?" 

Yes, all of Dell's current offerings are indeed capable of meeting Microsoft's minimum requirements for a "Basic Windows Vista Experience".  Some will need memory upgrades and some will even need graphics upgrades to meet the Aero requirements.  No surprises -- after all, Vista is still six months or more from shipping.  But wait, there IS a surprise ...

Today Dell sells six different platforms which they say CANNOT be upgraded to run the Windows Aero user interface -- even though Dell sells upgrades which appear to be compatible with these six platforms which do meet Microsoft's Aero requirements.

It's still too early to tell if this is just marketing hype of if there really is some subtle reason why these systems (or the Optiplex GX260 I've been using) cannot be upgraded to meet the Aero requirements.  Or, for that matter some legitimate reason why my lame Dimension 4100 cannot be upgraded to at least run the Basic Vista environment.  (Nor is it at all clear if the Basic Vista environment is less functional or only less pretty and less fast than the Aero environment.)

If you are going to be upgrading old donated workstations, then it really doesn't matter too much.  If you cannot run Windows Vista, then you'll get by on Windows XP Pro but before you go out and buy new workstations, make sure those new workstations are Windows Vista Capable 'out-of-the-box' and that they can be easily and inexpensively upgraded to be Windows Vista Premium Ready.  Otherwise, you may find that this Summer's cost-effective solution is no better than last year's lame donations when you get ready to take the Windows Vista plunge!

You may have to live with your donated boxes running Windows XP Pro for the foreseeable future but for Heaven's sake, don't buy anything today which you will have to live with for another three to five years without the benefit of Windows Vista Premium capabilities.

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